9 March 2011

Three Days in Tahrir Square

Tim DeMay was until January an English teacher in Cairo.

January 25th was warm and sunny, the omnipresent Cairo traffic eerily absent. A few friends and I walked outside and counted the ordered lines of police stationed around Tahrir Square. We had read reports of the prior protests in Cairo: smaller numbers than expected, haphazardly formed, quickly shut down. We expected nothing, even when we found the first group of protesters marching down Ramses Street—unveiled women and heavily bearded men, students, people in their fifties and sixties—or even when we watched this group break through a thin line of police, shouting “Horreya Horreya Horreya!” (“Freedom Freedom Freedom!”).

Then we reached the square. Tens of thousands had filled it, chasing out the usual buses and cars. Chants rose and fell away. “Yasqut Yasqut Hosni Mubarak!” (“Overthrow Overthrow Hosni Mubarak!”). What was next? The police answered by steering in a large armored van with a water cannon atop it, soaking the demonstrators. As we watched from the edge of the square, a protester climbed the van to try to stop the cannon. An officer followed him, and the two wrestled on the moving vehicle until they fell into the crowd below. They were stunned but unhurt, and the crowd lifted the protester over their heads. The demonstration had its first hero, and its first act of violence.

By nightfall, the square had a festival feel, with groups of protesters singing and clapping and giving speeches. Kids walked around with their parents. The Muslims stopped to do their evening prayers, while the Coptic Christians stood by silently. Soon, though, we felt a change in the air. Something was about to happen. We fled for my apartment three blocks away, and two hours later we heard blasts of tear gas and water cannons, mixed with chanting and screaming, followed by sirens. Reports mentioned that plainclothes police, armed with chains and sticks, had mixed with the protesters. Rubber bullets were fired. The police cleared out the crowd violently and viciously, detaining hundreds. News sources referred to it calmly as “dispersal.”


The next day, I followed a smaller group of protesters through the more fully cordoned streets by the downtown bus station. The peaceful chanting of the day before had become loud and angry. Bystanders were encouraged to join in: “Wahid, ithnayn, el shaab el Masri fayn?” (“One, two, where are the Egyptian people?”). Protesters burned abandoned cars and collected rocks, looking for anything they could use to fight against the police, who would approach, then quickly back away. I was aghast at first, recalling the peaceful demonstrations I had seen before, but then I realized I was encroaching on the day with my own presumptions. I kept watching.

The chants that had mounted slowly the day before, as though demonstrators were still learning the words, were now routine. In the hands of practically every demonstrator was a camera to document the protests and an onion or a lemon to stave off tear gas. As the crowd moved toward the Nile, I stopped to purchase batteries for my own camera, and by the time I caught up the group had been dispersed. Friends standing on a bridge overlooking the scene had watched as plainclothes police charged the group wielding sticks and eight-inch knives. The protesters had fled in every direction, and by the time I returned there were only a few plainclothes police on the street.

Whenever we had access to a computer we would quickly search for information from Twitter. Twitter itself had been shut down, but we were able to visit it through tweet-aggregating sites and proxies. From these we learned of the terrifying battles in the Suez and the imprisonments of protesters. We were linked to videos and pictures, given practical tips against tear gas, and updated on where the protests were happening. We learned that a protest was scheduled for Taalat Harb Square, but by the time we arrived there was only a nervous calm. Friends at apartments nearby texted us updates on where the protesters had moved to and what had happened. We walked the streets reading texts about snipers and swords, neither of which we encountered.


The next day, Cairo rested. My friends and I stayed indoors and read reports as we planned where to observe the protests of the following day, a Friday. According to the #Jan25 hashtag on Twitter, this was to be the day of the biggest protests. Groups would assemble at mosques after the afternoon prayer, then move toward Tahrir Square. We decided to go to a large mosque called Sayyida Zeinab, about fifteen minutes away, and make our way to Tahrir from there. That evening our internet connection failed, a strategy we had heard rumors of but didn’t believe would happen. Before bed, our phone service was cut as well. Anxiety set in as we realized we could not contact anyone, but the call for demonstrators had already been sent.

The prayers had not yet finished when we arrived at Sayyida Zeinab, but police already lined the mosque. While they waited, the officers joked with us, and a few even joked with the worshippers as they finished their prayers. Instead of watching from the ground, we made our way to the roof of a tall apartment building. Down below, cautious groups stood and watched each other until a few young men broke out in a loud chant. Within a few minutes, a large, peaceful crowd assembled, and almost immediately the police intervened, chasing the protesters with raised batons. We watched the demonstrators sprint away from officers who fifteen minutes before had been fellow Egyptians, laughing and chatting with civilians.

My friend Aysha and I zigzagged back to my apartment, taking detours to evade police barricades. By the time we arrived at Falaky Square, three blocks east of Tahrir Square, it was full, teeming with the protesters whose mixed demographics recalled those of the 25th. They were chanting the words now stuck in our heads: “El shaab yureed isqat el nizam!” (“The people demand the overthrow of the system!”). Men and women ran through the crowd delivering onions and lemons to dampen the effects of the gas, soda to pour on tear-gassed eyes, and cloths soaked in vinegar to cover mouths. Groups huddled around those who couldn’t breathe or had been hit by gas canisters. When they saw my friend Ben carrying a video camera, a group of Egyptians pushed him to the middle of a group to film a man with a swollen eye. The man was dazed from a likely concussion, and his head wobbled as his friends helped him off the ground. In Ben’s video you can see him sway, stop and look into the camera, and raise two fingers for peace.

On the main street to Tahrir, through thick white clouds of gas, we saw armored vans and rows of police, firing canister after canister. Each time the police pushed forward, the protesters backed away or spread out of Falaky Square, only to collect themselves and push in again. After a few hours of this, the protesters abandoned the square to join with groups further from Tahrir, hoping to amass the numbers necessary to push through the police cordons. Aysha and I walked through the now emptied streets to my apartment, where an expat who lived in the building told us the Army was intervening. What this meant we didn’t know.

Gunfire and the low pop of tear gas canisters started up soon enough, and we heard cheering from Tahrir Square. From the roof of the apartment building, we watched the protesters take back the square, repelling the police with rocks. Attacks and counterattacks continued throughout the night. But the next morning was quiet. We had phone service again and called our families to let them know we were OK, that it wasn’t as unsafe as it must seem to them, which was mostly true.

We wondered if the worst was over until we heard the first tear gas that afternoon. For the rest of the day and deep into the night, attacks continued along Mohammad Mahmoud Street, which borders the old American University in Cairo campus. Cars were lit on fire and exploded, and the street was chipped into fist-sized projectiles. It became clear that we were living next to one of the final conflicts between police and protesters. That night, as we watched looters carry away TVs and DVD players, we decided to move to Aysha’s apartment in Heliopolis, about thirty minutes away.

The next morning, our cab drove through barricades built by civilians to keep out looters. From Heliopolis, we talked to our families, who asked us to return to the US. Everything they told us sounded filtered through cable news, too extreme to be true. But there was still no internet service, and we had left the heart of the protests, so we had no source of reliable information ourselves. Looking back, we were trying to make a decision at a moment when events could have gone in either direction—toward peace or toward catastrophe. On January 30, we took the advice of our families and the US Embassy, and left on a Lufthansa flight to Frankfurt.

Twelve days later, I watched Mubarak resign his dictatorial presidency from my parents’ house in Pennsylvania, ten thousand miles away.

Image: Protestor climbs a police truck blasting the crowd with a water cannon, January 25, 2011. Photo by Ben Pitler.

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